REGULATING THE BIG BANKS (Part 1)

Here’s issue #32 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 5/29/12. JPMorgan Chase’s recent multi-billion dollar loss from securities trading has focused attention on the regulation of our large banks. This issue of my newsletter and the next one take a look at this issue.

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed in 2010. Its goal was to put an end to practices in the financial industry that led to the 2008 collapse of the financial sector and our economy.

One of its goals was to prevent speculative securities trading by banks that many equate to gambling with taxpayers’ money. This trading, called proprietary trading, enhances banks’ profits (when things go right) and senior managers’ bonuses, but do not benefit or serve bank customers. The Volcker Rule, named after former Chairman of the Federal Reserve (under Presidents Carter and Reagan), Paul Volcker, who proposed and supports it, is the specific piece of the Dodd-Frank law that bans such trading by banks. It would reinstate a key provision of the Glass-Steagall Act, put in place after the Great Depression but repealed in 1998, that required separation of banking from proprietary trading.

The reason for separating banking and proprietary trading is that banking is protected and supported by the federal government to ensure the safety of depositors’ money. Banks’ deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and banks have access to very low cost funds from the Federal Reserve. Proprietary trading is speculative and risky, providing potentially big gains and big losses to the banking corporation and its executives. If a bank, while protected and supported by the government, is allowed to engage in proprietary trading, this amounts gambling with taxpayers’ money. [1] And as we have just experienced, banks that are “too big to fail” will receive bailouts using taxpayer funds if their bets go bad.

During the process of writing the Dodd-Frank law, and now during the writing of regulations to implement the law, including the Volcker Rule, the financial industry from Wall Street has worked tirelessly to water down, delay, complicate, and confuse the process. [2] Using legions of lawyers and lobbyists, large campaign contributions, media campaigns, and friends in Congress and the Executive Branch (some who have traveled through the revolving door of moving between financial industry and government jobs), Wall Street works to add provisions and loopholes that complicate the result, and to undermine support for reform. Those working to create solid regulation and limitations try to write provisions that allow reasonable activities but close loopholes, knowing that after the fact the financial institutions will exploit any loopholes they can find.

The Volcker Rule’s ban on proprietary trading by banks only significantly affects the six biggest banking corporations, [3] as they are the ones who engage in extensive proprietary trading. Proprietary trading is not an essential banking activity and it creates a conflict of interest between the bank and its customers. The other 20 regional banks and 7,000 community banks are generally supportive of the Volcker Rule but find it “impossible … to challenge” the six big banks on this issue. The Volcker Rule is scheduled to go into effect in July 2012, but the banks have managed to get a two year delay and will have until 2014 to comply. [4] Two of the six big banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, got their banking licenses during the recent financial crisis specifically to reassure their depositors that their deposits were protected by the FDIC and to get access to support from the Federal Reserve. [5]

The recent $2 billion plus proprietary trading loss at JPMorgan Chase really grabbed everyone’s attention because JPMorgan is touted as having the best risk management in the industry. Its highly regarded CEO, Jamie Dimon, has been leading the charge against the Volcker Rule, claiming it is unnecessary. [6] If proprietary trading at JPMorgan in calm financial markets could result in such a big loss, many are wondering how great the current risk of huge losses at other banks might be, let alone what it would be when financial markets are more volatile.

The next issue of my newsletter will cover the response to this JPMorgan trading loss.


[1]       Silver-Greenberg, J., &Schwartz,N.D., 5/17/12, “JPMorgan losses reportedly up $1b,” The Boson Globe

[2]       Taibbi, M., 5/24/12, “How Wall Street killed financial reform,” Rolling Stone

[3]       The six biggest banks are JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley. They average $1.6 trillion in assets.

[4]       Rohde, D., 5/11/12,  “Break up the big banks,” Reuters

[5]       Moyers, B., with Volcker, P., 4/5/12, “Gambling with your money,” Moyers & Company on National Public Radio

[6]       Gogoi, P., 5/15/12, “Dimon likely to face ire, not ouster at JPMorgan meeting,” The Boston Globe

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